ASSOCIATES (vol. 7 no. 3, March 2001) -

The Challenge of Learning Disabled Patrons


Gail Shank
Reader Services Librarian
Curry College


Picture this: you are in the international airport in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and you need to find your flight out of the country. The signs and words surrounding you make no sense, are totally foreign and seem like gibberish. You contemplate turning around and running out the door. But you know that you must locate the flight information, purchase your ticket and board the plane, or you will lose your reservation and be in serious trouble.

For many learning disabled patrons this situation is not uncommon. Of course, they are not in Uzbekistan; they are in the library. What would you most like to see in Tashkent Airport? Your answer would probably be, "A friendly face". Those with learning disabilities are looking for exactly that in the library.

The Levin Library at Curry College in Milton, MA (near Boston) deals with a student population that is 40-50% learning disabled, because of a special program that attracts LD students nationally and internationally. PAL, the Program for Advancement of Learning, is the college's support program for students at Curry who have language-based learning disabilities. Students in PAL pay an additional fee for being in PAL; they meet regularly in one-to-one and small group sessions with a PAL instructor who is a learning specialist with a Master's degree in special education (or the equivalent). Basically, PAL students are there to become aware of their particular learning strengths and apply them in the learning process.

We know we are fortunate here at Curry to have an entire department that works with and advocates for LD students. Even if your institution does not have such a specialized program, there are many approaches you can take that will benefit both your staff and this unique population.

Behaviors to Expect

What are some of the learning disabilities we encounter in the library?

Paths to Success

You can imagine how challenging a library can appear to students with these problems. What have we found is most important when working with LD students? A change in priorities! We have discovered that the person most skilled at finding reference sources is not necessarily the person most skilled at working with LD students. As a group, library staff are usually linear sequential learners, and have chosen a profession where they find pleasure in quickly locating the best source of information. However, to work with LD students it is imperative to form a new goal - insuring a successful library experience and instilling feelings of trust and confidence. LD students often have had very negative library experiences, and are expecting more of the same. If you have already been harassed, confused and ridiculed at the Moscow airport, you will feel twice as anxious and tense as you approach the airport in Uzbekistan.

There are some basic rules that we follow, which have worked well for us at Levin Library.

Benefits and Joys

With some reasonable accommodations, more and more LD students are able to enter college and experience success. They bring with them high energy, creativity, interpersonal skills, sensitivity, loyalty, intuitiveness, warm hearts, gratefulness, and unbelievable tenacity. They have faced their fears and conquered them with style. In our experience LD students bring a special pleasure to the librarians who help them succeed in learning the library language, and moving confidently out into the world.

There are a multitude of books and articles on learning disabilities. Following are some interesting web sites that provide some basic information and links:

National Center for Learning Disabilities <>

Teens Helping Teens <>

LD Online <>

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